Fear and Loathing in West Sussex

Today I am 65k into the first draft of my work-in-progress and finding it bally hard going.  I knew this one wasn’t going to be easy – nothing worth doing is.  It has at its heart a difficult relationship and calls on, somewhat tangentially, areas in my life I’d really rather not confront.

I don’t want to give spoilers, or pre-empt things that might not get in the finished book, but I’d like to comment on a particular aspect in this post. One strand that runs through the book has an ick factor in some people’s minds. It deals with something we don’t talk about – and most certainly don’t write about in fiction for young people. At the back of my mind,  Mrs Sensible says ‘you keep that in and no gatekeeper will ever let you in – never mind the book’.

Yet Ms Creative says ‘it stays – I’ve gone through a lot to put that toe-curling, squirm-able part of my life into a fictional form – and that’s what makes it good, something readers will engage with.’

Who is right?

If I look at the opinions of rational, professional writers who have to pay the bills like Stroppy Author – Mrs Sensible wins hands down. After all, I have the luxury of a patron (Lovely Husband) and not being published yet – so no expectations from the industry. But I want to be professional, to write well and to pay my way. ‘Submitting something a bit dodgy – not wise,’ says Mrs Sensible.

On the other hand, the only method I have for writing original stories which avoid the banal and the obvious, is to use the heartfelt experiences inside me. In this case, it has led to something a great deal of adults are squeamish* about – and may make it unpublishable. But it matters – it’s been hard to write about and although it’s not finished, it’s good. It matters to the central character and makes a difference to her relationships and the plot. Not so easily removed.

Mrs Sensible suggests ‘write it for an older readership then’ – Ms Creative counters ‘they’ll be too old, it’ll be memory, not experience’.

See – I’ve resorted to visual euphemisms.

What to do? All comments very gratefully received – I haven’t had any for a while.

*including me

“To hurt is as human as to breathe.”

J. K. ROWLING, The Tales of Beedle the Bard

How a person copes with pain reveals a lot about their character – an observation that will usefully serve for us writers. After all, our job is to put our creations through a lot – to show what they are made of.

Maybe they are injured but keep quiet and stoical. This may be as brave as it seems, or perhaps later you have them let slip the stored resentment because no-one took the hint. Or show someone else crumbling under same stress to bolster the point.

What about the prima donna type wanting to be waited on hand and foot? That’s fine – but it could be fun to have your demanding diva set all that aside when it really matters. Always good to have different sides to a character – especially if you set up a pattern of behaviour and then break it.

Their attitude to medicine can be telling too. Do we see them reach for painkillers straight away, dispute with doctors, reject cures or heal themselves? Do they ask advice – or dish it out? Hypochondriacs can be a source of amusement – and so can the gullible.

A bit of realism doesn’t come amiss. I loathe adventure stories and thrillers where people carry on and on despite broken limbs, near drownings and shootings.  I remember Richard Lester’s ‘Four Musketeers’ where Christopher Lee and Michael York tottered with exhaustion. We need to write like that – as near as dammit feel what our characters suffer – and show it.

Likewise their response to others in distress is important – rush in with sympathy but little thought, offer practical solutions, actually do stuff? The characters we love to hate can be straightforwardly callous – but how much more loathsome is the much-advertised kindliness which is far more about image than substance? How calculating to have an apparently concerned ‘friend’ who later abuses their place of trust.

Whatever time period your work is set in, pain is something common to all humans and other animals. It can work well to increase sympathy and credibility – be it a stubbed toe or a dreadful fever. So go on – give your protagonist a poke and see how they react.

“It matters not what a person is born, but who they choose to be.” J.K. Rowling

As part of my MA at West Dean College, I gave a presentation about my work-in-progress. I used images and texts to evoke the period and place that my story was set in quite comfortably. I felt confident about portraying the 1960s without cloying nostalgia, and happy firmly locating it on the Yorkshire coast. I was able to outline the general social background: the underlying tension between the seal people and the fishermen of Scoresby Nab.

But then I reached the specific ‘who’- my central protagonist – and it all went a bit vague. Come the plenary and it was clear my audience had been left in some fuzzy hinterland they disliked.

I determined to do something about this.

I had no joy with writing a bog standard character description. It came out twee, stereotypical. If  I could sneak up on him sideways somehow, Mattie might become clearer. It occurred to me that in the best stories we learn a good deal about a character by the reactions of those around them. I hit upon the idea of ‘asking’  Mattie’s grandmother and others: I could see him through a matrix of other people’s views.

So now I am creating chunks of Grandma’s diary, newspaper cuttings, and  a doctor’s note. I wonder what else might inform.

Any suggestions?